Chief Pilots in charge of training and standards resign in protest while Pilots Guild will only ‘fly the roster’ By Namini Wijedasa SriLankan Airlines has suspended its latest intake of trainee pilots over protests that the management had lowered a crucial qualifying test score ostensibly to accommodate two failed candidates. The qualifying score for the final [...]


Turbulence in the cockpit as SriLankan management lowers qualifying mark


Chief Pilots in charge of training and standards resign in protest while Pilots Guild will only ‘fly the roster’

By Namini Wijedasa

SriLankan Airlines has suspended its latest intake of trainee pilots over protests that the management had lowered a crucial qualifying test score ostensibly to accommodate two failed candidates. The qualifying score for the final aptitude test—conducted in a flight simulator—was set at 70. However, the management had unexpectedly directed SriLankan Airlines Chief Operations Officer Captain Druvi Perera to reduce this by five points to 65.

Two candidates who were previously notified that they had failed the test were then asked to report for their medical examination at SriLankan, informed sources told the Sunday Times. This raised the number of selected cadet pilots from eight to 10. A total of 33 sat the exam. The reduction of the qualifying score was strongly opposed by the instructor panel, with the two chief pilots in charge of training and standards, resigning. The Pilots Guild immediately held an Extraordinary General Meeting at which they decided to “fly the roster”. This meant they would reject requests from the Flight Operations Department to work on their holidays, to meet a dire pilot shortage.

As SriLankan has insufficient pilots to run the roster in a regulated manner, this could result in delays and flight cancellations, Pilots Guild President Captain Ruwan Withanage told the Sunday Times. He stressed, however, that the Guild was not willing to compromise on standards and safety. The membership was united on this.
“We are trying to safeguard a system that has been put in place to protect all of you as passengers on our airplanes,” he said. “Instructors are widely respected in the world of aviation. If the management lowers the pass mark, overlooking the whole instructor body, where do we stand? This is a matter of pilot training, the standards for which are decided by a forum of instructors.”

Ironically, the results of pre-employment tests for pilots are speedily released to minimise external influence. The simulator tests were held on February 26, 27 and 28, and the scores disclosed a day later, on March 1. The candidates were informed of the outcome the same afternoon. By Saturday morning, however, the SriLankan management had confirmed that it would lower the pass mark—defying all procedures set in place to prevent meddling.

It is not clear whose idea it was to have the criterion changed. Upon repeated questioning by the Pilots Guild, the management claimed it had been done on the instructions of Civil Aviation Minister Priyankara Jayaratne. But the Minister’s letter, seen the by the Sunday Times, was dated March 6—four days after the score was revised.  Pilots Guild sources pointed out that aviation regulatory authorities around the world have set pass marks at 70. This includes the Federal Aviation Agency of the United States, the Joint Aviation Authorities of Europe and the British Civil Aviation Authority. The same qualifying score is required even of cabin crew, at their various examinations.

This criterion has been so strictly applied at SriLankan that candidates—including the sons and daughters of senior instructor pilots—are repeatedly disqualified in spite of some of them scoring as high as 69 at the aptitude test. “The failed candidates could always reapply, after assessing what they did wrong and correcting their mistakes,” said an experienced pilot, on condition of anonymity. “I didn’t make it into the national airline at my first attempt.”

When contacted for comment, Civil Aviation Director General H.M.C. Nimalsiri confirmed that the qualifying score in all tests set by the regulator was 70. This included examinations to obtain a private pilot licence, a commercial pilot licence or an airline transport pilot licence.  Additionally, pilots recruited by SriLankan—including the most senior ones—were continuously subjected to assessments such as technical refresher, safety equipment procedures and dangerous goods tests. The pass mark for each was 70, where failure resulted in loss of employment.

“In aviation, there can be no lowering of an academic pass-mark,” Captain Withanage said. “We are strictly regulated professionals. The aptitude test is the most important one, a basic exercise that checks one’s flying skills. You will find people who have passed theoretical tests, but can’t fly.” Captain Withanage warned that the dispute could escalate, “because all the instructors are against this”. Among other things, their integrity was at stake.

Increasing pilot intake at the cost of passenger safety?

SriLankan Airlines revised the simulator test cut-off mark to increase the intake of qualified national candidates, said Chief Executive Officer Kapila Chandrasena. He insisted that this did not amount to a lowering of standards or of training quality.

Mr. Chandrasena confirmed that the management had put the latest batch on hold in response to protests by the Pilots Guild. A discussion between the two sides is scheduled for today. “We hope we can arrive at a position without compromising any standards while also looking at the long-term interests of the airline and of this country,” he said.

The CEO said he didn’t know why the chief pilots of training and standards had resigned, as they had not spoken directly with him. “I presume there was some disagreement and they tendered their resignations in protest,” he asserted.

The airline was short of 50 First Officers, he observed. This had forced them to hire expatriate captains who commanded higher fees. Not only did the airline need more pilots, it was national policy to afford more opportunities to Sri Lankans. It was not immediately clear why the hiring of more Sri Lankans mandated a reduction in the pass mark of just one of three tests.

All candidates who sat the simulator test had possessed the required qualifications, having passed a written exam and a technical competency test. They were within age limit and had the necessary educational credentials. “We merely asked in this case to lower the cut-off mark of the simulator assessment to accommodate more Sri Lankans,” Mr. Chandrasena said.

The CEO could not explain, however, why it had been decided to slash the qualifying score from 70 to 65—and not to any other figure. He said the management had stipulated the new pass mark, “based on the requirement”. He said he didn’t know or have any personal connection to the two failed candidates that benefited from the change.

Although Mr. Chandrasena said the management intended to increase the pilot intake, the airline does not have sufficient training capacity. In fact, SriLankan has reduced its number of cadet pilot intakes this year from three to two. “The last batch is yet to finish training, while some have not even started,” a senior pilot said, requesting anonymity.

Cadet pilots undergo a yearlong programme approved and regulated by the Director General of Civil Aviation. Mr. Chandrasena said it was this programme that set the standards—not the pre-employment tests. “The management has at no time asked to revise or reduce the standard of that training programme,” he pointed out.
The CEO could not explain why instructors had not been consulted, only saying, “The thinking is that instructors are there to do the training programme.”

Why had the management waited till the selection of candidates was finalised to change the criterion? The question remains.

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